The War against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery


374 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0578-4




Reviewed by William A. Waiser

Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.  His


In recent years, the annual Newfoundland harp seal harvest has become the subject of international scorn and disrepute for Canada. What is little known, however, is that sealing has been carried on in North America for several centuries off the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts. The War against the Seals is a history of this activity.

Drawing heavily upon secondary literature, Busch concentrates on three areas or periods of North American sealing activity: the eighteenth and nineteenth century New England sealers who roamed world wide; the Newfoundland seal hunt of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and the North Pacific seal fishery, both pelagic and land based, since 1867. In each case, the author describes the life cycle and habits of the particular species of seal hunted, as well as the method of killing and processing. He also documents, using first-hand accounts wherever possible, the life of the sealer and what kind of remuneration he received from the hunt. The shabby treatment of the Aleuts on the Pribilofs is particularly disturbing. Busch also demonstrates how the seal fishery has had significant economic ramifications. For example, he describes how the eclipse of the schooners by the “wooden walls” in the late nineteenth century reduced outpost participation in the Newfoundland seal fishery and led to the concentration of the trade in St. John’s. There were important political/diplomatic dimensions, too, such as the late nineteenth century Bering fur seal controversy, which became one of the long-standing disputes between Canada and the United States. In fact, the only disappointments in this general history are the maps. They are more than compensated for, however, by the extensive notes and bibliography, which comprise almost one-quarter of the book.

Given the emotionally charged nature of the topic, Busch has tried to write an objective history. In keeping with the book’s title, however, he goes to extreme lengths to calculate the number of seals harvested in each region and to explain how the hunt affected not only the herd size but the very existence of the particular species. This tally — fifty million seals over 200 years — together with Busch’s references to live scalping and the Pacific “trimmings” trade, will probably add further support to the anti-sealing cause.


Busch, Briton Cooper, “The War against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 22, 2024,